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Truth or Dare in Costa Rica’s Presidential Campaign

Costa Rica's presidential campaign has become quite tense in the lead-up to the February 7 elections, but it also has turned rather goofy.

One of the latest displays of wackiness took the form of a lie detector test, which several leading candidates actually agreed to take on national television.

I was eating dinner at a Japanese restaurant here on the east side of San José, when right-wing candidate Otto Guevara popped on the restaurant's TV screen strapped to a polygraph machine.

"Have you profited in any way while carrying out your duties for which you could be legally charged?" a moderator asked Guevara, 49, of the Libertarian Movement. "Have you lied to the media during your election campaign?" she asked.

Guevara replied "No" to both, and the machine gave him a green light—Canal 7 told viewers he was telling the truth. The front-runner in the campaign, National Liberation Party's (PLN) Laura Chinchilla, refused to participate in the televised interrogation. Guevara is in second place in the polls, hovering at or under 30 percent. Not to miss the opportunity to capitalize on the polygraph test, he bought a two-page spread in national newspapers that boasted he is the only honest candidate in the race.

This was partly an attempt to dispel controversy that has boiled over in recent months about the questionable source of the cash the Guevara campaign has been shelling out for propaganda, which reportedly had surpassed $1 million by December. Fingers even pointed at Ricardo Martinelli, Panama's president and probably the region's only standing libertarian, as a possible donor, an allegation which Guevara denies.

Guevara stunned analysts by virtually sneaking up in the polls and stealing the second place spot from Ottón Solís, who narrowly lost the last elections in 2006 to President Óscar Arias.

Back in September—which already seems like a political eternity ago—former Vice President Chinchilla looked poised to win Costa Rica's February 7 presidential elections in a landslide. A Unimer poll published in La Nación newspaper gave her 63 percent of voter support.

The same pollster said support for Arias' favorite candidate has sunk 23 points since then to about 40 percent, in part thanks to a relative outsider who started closing the gap. The Libertarian Movement's Guevara scooped 30 percent of decided voters' support, according to Unimer poll this month.

However, an analyst at a separate polling company said the tide again is changing. "Otto Guevara seems to have hit a ceiling," Esteban Alvarez of CID-Gallup told me earlier this week. CID-Gallup has been doing daily tracking, he said. As of Friday, January 29, their numbers were: Laura Chinchilla 44 percent (steady), Otto Guevara 26 percent (down from 30 percent on Tuesday), Ottón Solís 18 percent (up from 15 percent) and Luis Fishman 9 percent (up from 8 percent).

In other wackiness, Luis Fishman of the Social Christian Unity Party—fighting to pick up the pieces after the party's last candidate, former President Rafael Angel Calderón was convicted of corruption—launched a campaign with the slogan "the lesser evil is better." Voters could not believe he was apparently admitting to some degree of evilness, but Carlos Denton, CID-Gallup’s founding president, said the campaign has gone over well.

I will leave you with a beyond absurd TV commercial the campaign ran earlier this month: gorgeous pregnant women singing about why they're voting for Fishman and men dressed only in diapers or bibs and drinking from oversize baby bottles? Yes, it has come to this.

Alex Leff is a contributing blogger to based in San José, Costa Rica, and is the online editor for The Tico Times, Central America's leading English-language newspaper.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Oscar Arias, Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, Otto Guevara, Luis Fishman

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